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Book Review

‘That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick’ by Ellin Stein

“It is the curse of the humorist,” P.J. O’Rourke once remarked, “to be laughed at.” Few have been more badly burned by this paradoxical truth than those wits, real and half, who toiled for The National Lampoon, the alternately clever and juvenile humor magazine that debuted in 1970 and became one of the decade’s biggest publishing successes. Along the way, the Lampoon popularized several skeins of humor — some salubrious, others less so — launched the careers of dozens of celebrated writers and performers, and demonstrated, well before the ascendancy of Martha Stewart, the potential for multimedia branding: into radio, theater, books, records, TV, film. Indeed, millions who never browsed the magazine or its ’60s antecedent, The Harvard Lampoon, memorized every line of “National Lampoon’s Animal House” (1978) and cheered Chevy Chase’s bumbling pursuit of Christie Brinkley in “National Lampoon’s Vacation” (1983).

Yet while the brand lives on, still churning out fare like “National Lampoon Presents Surf Party” (2013), the magazine itself never attained the highbrow respect achieved by other venues for satire, like The New Yorker or SPY, and it ultimately ceased publication in 1998.

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